Surviving as a lobbyist requires thick skin. But in recent years, the age-old attacks on my profession have escalated into a populist crusade. So I've defended the advocacy business in Stanford's Law & Policy Review, and before college and industry audiences who usually respond to my opening line—"Lobbying is honorable"—with a mixture of laughter and groans. I can't say that I've made a dent in public opinion, which still tends to rate lobbyists as less trustworthy than used-car salesmen. But my point—that lobbying is honest and necessary work—is timelier than ever.
Last month, the Supreme Court made it easier for corporations and unions to spend money on campaigns, sparking new fears that money will further control Washington, D.C. Whether you love it or loathe it, the decision has also renewed efforts to crack down on lobbying. But contrary to conventional wisdom, the solution is more lobbying, not less. Instead of trying to limit the use of expert advocacy, we need to find ways to give the less advantaged more access to legislative muscle. Lobbying provides a check on undue influence, power, and favoritism. It keeps lawmakers accountable. And even the poorest village should have its own firepower, so to speak—its own version of The Magnificent Seven in the Capitol.
Admittedly, the image of wealthy backslappers fighting for the little guy is not the first to pop into most people's minds. That's because lobbyists are usually caricatured as hired guns for "special interests," blocking Ma-and-Pa legislation to benefit big corporations. In truth, all Americans have lobbyists working for them in some capacity. Among the organizations that spent the most on lobbying in 2009 are the decidedly people-oriented AARP ($15 million) and the American Cancer Society ($3 million). Teachers, firemen, police officers, soldiers, entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses, kids—they all have lobbyists.
So how do we give them access to more? The legal industry offers a useful model. We should set industry goals for the amount of pro-bono work every lobbyist does annually, recognize outstanding contributions, and make this form of public service part of our professional job description—much as it is part of the American Bar Association's rules of professional conduct for lawyers. We should also empower Main Street Americans by helping them establish lobbying coalitions—groups of individuals united by a common purpose. People are already able to join their legal claims in class actions, and, often to the chagrin of big corporations, use contingency fees to retain lawyers they could not otherwise afford. A similar system could help individuals seeking to put their support behind a policy claim.
In addition, we should encourage universities and colleges to extend their loan-forgiveness programs to graduates who lobby for underrepresented groups. (How about setting up "Lobby for America," modeled after Teach for America?) And, most important, we should provide all Americans with the access and know-how to use e-mail and social media, because, more and more, we interact with our government online.
For these suggestions to catch on, of course, people need to understand that lobbyists don't gum up the legislative process, hijack policy, and fight for anyone with a checkbook. The reality is far more boring: lobbyists navigate congressional thickets, decipher 1,000-page bills and oddly worded regulations, and, fundamentally, contribute to a marketplace of ideas that benefits everyone—not just the person who talks the loudest.
That's why we need more lobbying, not less. The wealthy and well-connected will always have other arrows in their quiver—and the Supreme Court decision may have added another. For the less fortunate, however, lobbyists are among their best ways to be heard. I know, cue the laughter and groans. But it's the truth.